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American Grindhouse
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by brianorndorf

"Boobs, bruises, and Nazis"
4 stars

I suppose the classic image of a grindhouse film is something along the lines of a bug-eyed man splattered with blood holding a knife over a half-naked woman. It’s an honest summation of the cinematic culture, but there’s an entire history here worth an examination. Elijah Drenner’s “American Grindhouse” traces the history, excesses, and glory of unsavory cinema, providing a magnificent education in the process, communicating the nuances and traditions of a brand often disregarded as forgettable schlock.

Lightning paced and overflowing with information, “American Grindhouse” (narrated by Robert Forster) seems primarily interested in drawing exploitation connections throughout the history of motion pictures. Drenner establishes the lineage of grindhouse early on, stepping back to the early days of filmed entertainment, when ambitious visual pioneers decided to rope in audiences with salacious images, promising sex and violence in a lawless era of pre-code Hollywood, permitting producers to lure in the interested with a buffet of big screen horrors and delights, playing to the primal needs of the audience.

Catering to a specialized audience proved to be quite lucrative for these frugal filmmakers, who proceeded to churn out exploitation product by the thousands, covering all sorts of nightmarish and seductive material, striking gold in the 1940s with a string of “sex hygiene” features, the most famous being 1945’s “Mom and Dad,” a picture that skirted censorship laws with its medical approach to anatomy and the birthing process. How this footage was interpreted and utilized by its audience is best left unknown.

“American Grindhouse” soon tears off into the 1950s and ‘60s, deploying interviews with filmmakers such as John Landis and Joe Dante (along with various critics, industry players, and historians) to explore the rise of the juvenile delinquent genre, eventually leading to the great gore explosion, kicked off by Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1963 gross-out classic, “Blood Feast.” Biker flicks, “Nudie Cuties” (a bosomy subgenre of jiggle established by Russ Meyer) and “Roughies” (where sex and violence were blended) are also discussed in detail, with the interviewees gleefully recounting production stories and release efforts, pinpointing Times Square as the primary example of a profitable and beguilingly unpredictable grindhouse circuit -- boisterous theatrical palaces where watching the feature played only a minor part in the overall moviegoing experience.

The 1970s brought the rise of blaxploitation pictures, women in prison excursions, and horror bonanzas (detailing the work of Ted V. Mikels) to theaters, though “American Grindhouse” shows more interest in the “Nazi Exploitation” boom, where lurid films such as “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS” flourished for a brief moment, capturing a strange element of taboo behavior for those on the hunt for fresh shock value.

“American Grindhouse” contains such a wealth of footage and eager interviewees, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of recollection and scholarly dissection, exploring a colorful history of film and motion picture distribution. Drenner assembles an amusing and revelatory documentary, piecing together a line of cinematic influence that every movie fan should take the time to admire. Grindhouse itself goes beyond the monstrous and titillating, revealed to be a vital foundation of moviemaking, carrying a profound influence that deserves the affectionate spotlight this documentary provides.

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originally posted: 08/08/11 03:01:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2010 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/05/10 Dennis McDonald educational! 4 stars
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Directed by
  Elijah Drenner

Written by
  Elijah Drenner


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